Computer Arts Projects - Music Design Now!
Computer Arts Projects
March 2008

Music Design Now!

Evolution or revolution? Within just a few short years, design for the music industry has altered beyond recognition – how and why and what does this mean for tomorrow’s designers? Lawrence Zeegen investigates…

There’s an insider record company rumour going round that a million unsold copies of Robbie William’s Rudebox album are being shipped to China to be crushed and used in road surfacing and street lighting. The music business isn’t in great shape, heck let’s be honest - it’s in a right old mess. Simon Napier-Bell, with 40 years experience of managing some of the UK’s top acts, said recently that he thinks that ‘the record industry is careering towards meltdown.’ This is really no exaggeration, when you take a look at the facts and stats facing the core business of the record companies - the sale of CDs. With global sales down last year, in turn, down on the previous year – where does the business with only one business model turn to next? And the fall in sales certainly isn’t being replaced fast enough by digital sales despite downloads rising almost 50% in 2007, from 52.5 million in 2006, to 77.6 million. Apple, having launched iTunes in 2003, published figures in July 2007, when total downloads reached 3 billion. No mean feat, but then Apple is unlike the dinosaurs of the record industry - refusing to acknowledge and accept change until far too late. With CD sales plummeting and downloads not taking up the slack, to say that there is panic in the record industry right now, would simply be a vast underestimation of the current climate.

The ‘Fab Four’…
The music industry is dominated by four key players; EMI, formed in 1931 and recently taken over by Guy Hands and Terra Firma, Sony BMG, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, itself alone accounting for around 25% of the global market. Independents may still account for around 28% of the overall market, but it is really only the ‘Big Four’ that call the shots. Or so they thought. With Paul McCartney walking and joining Starbucks and with Radiohead releasing In Rainbows as a ‘pay-what-you-want’ download last year, then signing to XL for the CD release, and Coldplay said to be considering their future – EMI, the only British company amongst the ‘Fab Four’, certainly have their work cut out. McCartney described EMI, as he shut the door on leaving, as ‘really very boring’ and Thom Yorke, of Radiohead, said that the new management was acting like ‘a confused bull in a china shop’.

Axing 2000 of the 5,500 jobs worldwide and restructuring the company might help, but when one considers that around 85% of EMI releases never make a profit and currently there are 14,000 artists signed to the label, it is going to take some turning round. Of course, the back catalogue helps; half of the company’s business is in sales of re-releases by artists, such as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. But what for the future of record companies generally, and what for the role design plays in their future?

Heading East
Where better to commence an investigation into current and future trends in design for the music industry than a trip out east, to London’s strangely-still-uber-cool Hoxton, to chew the fat with Rob O’Conner; the man who has witnessed more than his fair share of twists and turns after more than a quarter of a century at the helm of Stylorouge – the definitive music design company. Originally formed in 1981, and based in a two-desk office above Capitelli’s restaurant on the Edgware Road, fast-forward to Stylorouge 2008, and you could be forgiven for thinking the studio has been imaginatively styled as a cross between a gentleman’s club and a sauna; there’s an awful lot of floor to ceiling pine going on and whilst this simply isn’t very rock and roll, it isn’t very Hoxton either. However, despite a constant buzz from computers and monitors, music is being played - good and loud, over studio speakers, and you get the distinct impression that it is the love of music that drives the company.

Cross-Media Traffic
For Alex James, of Blur, his first visit to Stylorouge, then based in an attractive mews in Paddington, was an occasion worth recalling in his autobiography A Bit of a Blur. The visit to the design company, that were to create so much of the band’s graphic identity, left a lasting impression – ‘It was the sort of place at which everyone who did art at school would have dreamed about working,’ wrote James, ‘they’d designed the covers of all the greatest records ever made, by the look of things, and there were gold discs all over the walls in reception.’ For O’Conner, never one to sit still or rest on his laurels, and with a client list that has spanned Wham! Morrissey, Bob Marley, The Pretenders and so many others, the temptation must have been hard to resist - ‘You know,’ starts O’Conner, ‘I’m excited about the here, the now and the future. To be honest, I’m sick and tired of the square format.’ Stylorouge, under O’Conner’s leadership has moved with the times, from the vinyl 7” and 12” sleeve designs of yesteryear, the CD packaging of the present-day and the digital design demands of new formats, Stylorouge has embraced change – ‘During the past 12 months, we’ve worked on websites, MySpace sites, video clips, blogs, web shops, web banners, micro sites with drop down content,’ he explains, ‘as well as pod-casts, content for mobiles, video show-reels, animated sequences, TV commercials…’ - the list goes on. What’s left to cover? ‘I really want to do some animated/video billboards,’ O’Conner responds enthusiastically. ‘Cross-media is exactly where we are heading,’ he adds, despite the fact that Stylorouge certainly look to have already arrived.

Diversification or Die
How then has Stylorouge moved forward in an industry that has remained so static for so long? ‘We’ve diversified, it’s the record companies that haven’t,’ explains O’Conner, ‘they were always governed by the two R’s – retail and radio. They were dictated to by retailers, why didn’t they get in on the act and start their own retail companies like Branson did with Virgin? They could have got into radio but didn’t – they were having it too good and for too long,’ he states. So, with the diminishing sales of CDs and related cover design projects waning, and diversification across the sector having become a popular option for companies like Stylorouge, what has changed about working in music design? ‘The budgets,’ O’Conner admits, ‘the prices have come right down but you just have to work with it. Change and progress are inevitable,’ he adds, ‘record companies should have listened to 15 year olds 15 years ago, the way that they consume music has radically altered, if the industry had listened then, it wouldn’t be in the mess it is now.’ O’Conner doesn’t sound angry, he is excited and upbeat about the future – ‘I’ve really enjoyed the past year,’ he enthuses, ‘I’m a big believer in collaboration and that’s what working cross-media in music is all about, I’ve always liked working with people open to new methods and aspects of image-making – we do a lot in-house, but if we need extra expertise – we buy it in.’

Hop, Skip and Jump…
From the pine-clad HQ of Stylorouge, it is a mere hop, skip and jump past a couple of Banksy murals on Hoxton’s Rivington Street to Big Active’s base – industrial urban chic being very much the BA style. Large stencilled directional arrows, letters and numerals line the walls, there is lots of bare concrete, exposed lighting rigs and a genuine sense that the décor wouldn’t look out of place on an oil rig. Having relocated from their former space in Wapping, Big Active certainly fit well into their Hoxton abode – they exist alongside model agencies, photographers’ studios, new media design companies and whilst it may all appear a touch too Nathan Barley, it doesn’t fail to impress.

DIY Design
Gerald Saint is Creative Director at Big Active and certainly looks the part – he is sporting an Ibiza Rocks T (fair play – Big Active did design the branding) and has that just-got-out-of-bed hairstyle, the one that most men work far too hard at achieving; his looks effortless. Like Rob O’Conner at Stylorouge, a couple of streets away, Saint is just as upbeat and positive about life as a designer for the music industry – ‘It’s an incredibly exciting time,’ enthuses Saint, ‘it’s like punk or rave was, all over again. You get the feeling that it is all so much more do-it-yourself. Record labels have traditionally operated as a bank, advancing cash to bands, as well as throwing in some marketing experience, but now young bands can do it themselves - MySpace offers that alternative – it’s an exciting industry to be working in right now.’

Saint may appear to champion an alternative vision to the mainstream, but Big Active’s client base consists mainly of old-school record labels – ‘We’re proud to be working with big labels and big acts,’ admits Saint, ‘it’s nothing to be ashamed of, in fact we really don’t do a lot of work that we don’t like, clients just don’t approach us with work that we don’t want to do.’ The Big Active portfolio reads like a who’s who in the coolest of contemporary music – Basement Jaxx, Athlete, Goldfrapp, The Enemy, Beck, Muse, Gnarls Barkley… oh and yes and Snow Patrol and Keane. Don’t mistake Big Active for record sleeve designers or CD packaging artists though – ‘It’s now about creating an entire campaign, its about creating visibility and less about an artistic statement – of course, we always want to design something defining and memorable and making that intrinsic link between visuals and music is important, but we’re now well established in the commercial market so creating campaigns has become our rationale.’

Big Active may be relative newcomers, compared to the Stylorouge quarter century, but with only a decade to their name they have defined an attitude that permeates their work. Back in 2002, when Big Active launched Gas Book 2, a compendium of their work to date, they spoke to Athmosphere Magazine, reflecting on what brought them together – ‘we were just a bunch of working class kids who fancied our chances of making a big name for ourselves, either as musicians or designers. We chose design but with a very rock and roll attitude.’ Again a design company, involved in design for music, that are actively (excuse the pun) involved because of their passion for music – ‘Creatively, we don’t go in for that twenty-five minute drum or guitar solo type nonsense. Visually we prefer the short sharp shock of a three minute memorable pop classic.’

From Record Label to Label-Free
From gritty East London, next stop is coast-side Brighton to catch up with Red’s Creative Director Ed Templeton. Formed in 1996 Red have made a name for themselves as the agency of choice for numerous music-related clients that have, of course, included Skint Records and Mr Fat Boy Slim (their first album sleeve for Norman clocked up seven million copies!). Red have gone onto to pick up sleeve designs for Tru Thoughts, EMI, Universal, Polydor, Mute, Island, Mercury, Atlantic, Vertigo… the list goes on and on…

The story at Red isn’t dissimilar from Rob’s at Stylorouge and Gerald’s at Big Active – Templeton has diversified Red’s core business and their overall approach to working for and with record companies. ‘We knew that we were already evolving in a much more cross-media way,’ explains Templeton, ‘but we weren’t getting the message across clearly to our clients at first. They needed to hear exactly how we were moving things along – design in the music industry has altered and over the past seven years we have diversified – the 12” sleeve and CD formats had started to seem so claustrophobic.’ Templeton, like others in design, had recognised the need for expertise in a broader range of commercial applications. Originally motivated to become a designer because of his huge interest in music and record sleeve design, Templeton had understood that changing patterns of music consumption meant that Red would have to change with the times, ‘Last year,’ he explains, ‘Red probably worked on 50% motion graphics projects, 25% web-related and only 25% print – that says something about the approach we’ve taken, and it’s paying off – more work and more varied work too.’

Get With The Programme
The record industry might well be in flux, but graphic design is evolving rather than dwindling – it is clear that the secret weapon in the armoury is diversity and in offering a full-service practice. ‘It certainly isn’t all doom and gloom – it is evolution!’ proclaims Templeton. ‘We’re not trying to be King Canute – we can’t and don’t want to hold back the tide,’ adds O’Conner and, over at Big Active, Saint completes the call to arms; ‘We can’t stop the monster, we need to embrace the monster!’ Kings and monsters aside, one thing is for certain; the revolution in music design is with us now, as is the rally-cry - ‘Evolve or Die!’

Xtra 01
I’m With The Band…
Making it as a young designer, photographer or illustrator in the music industry can be greatly assisted if you’re hanging out with the bands to be, before they make it to the top. Locating the next big thing however, isn’t easy to gauge - the only sure-fire route to success is in being in the right place at the right time…

For Dan Mumford, already picking up fans for his intricate artworks for seminal cult doom-drivers Gallows, it was an early link with the band that launched his career. – ‘I’d known a few members of Gallows from long before they started as a band,’ explains Mumford, ‘they all come mainly from my home town of Watford, so when it came to creating artwork for the original release of the album in 2006 they asked me to work on it with a friend Alex Curtis of Thr33 Designs. It was a fun project,’ Mumford continues, ‘I don’t think any of us thought anything of it really, it was just a friend’s band putting out a low-key release – of course, the album became very successful and Warner re-released it – I then redid the entire artwork for 2 disc digi-pack CD and 12” vinyl.’ Mumford’s relationship with Gallows has gone from strength to strength and he’s worked on all of their releases as well as a range of T-shirts, stage banners and even skate decks. Right place, right time helped, but you have to hand it to Mumford – right work too.

Xtra 02
Right Place, Right Time, Right Now
The band of the moment is Foals – January 2008 kicked off with an NME cover, an Observer Music cover and Foals hotly tipped for the top in most polls and to top off a successful start to the year Yannis, the lead singer, appeared on Never Mind The Buzzcocks before the end of the first month.

Chris Wright is the designer responsible for the Foals artwork and sleeve designs – ‘The commission came about purely because I studied an art foundation course with the drummer and the bassist before the band was formed,’ explains Wright, ‘Jack, the drummer, brought Yannis along to an exhibition I was involved in - Yannis asked immediately if I’d create all of the artwork for a new band they were planning, actually what he said was - ‘we’re going to be famous and you’re going to do all of our artwork!’’

Wright, without access to a crystal ball, strolled rather than leapt at the opportunity; ‘I was happy to get involved, I wasn’t planning on going to university for a year and wanted something to draw in my free time, that was all it was at the start…’ From drawing and designing in his free time; much has changed – ‘I create everything for the band now, the idea is to keep the image constant, the artwork has become synonymous with Foals.’ This looks to be a busy year for Foals and for Chris Wright - already synonymous Foals too.

Xtra 03
For The Love of Music…
If you can’t beat them, join them – some designers are also musicians themselves and find their way into music design through their own music. Paul Farrington at Studio Tonne and Martin Andersen of Anderson M Studio share similar experiences – both are huge music fans and both have recorded and released their own music and as well, of course, designed the sleeves and related packaging.

Studio Tonne’s client list is impressive – artists such as Depeche Mode and Moby are amongst those that Farrington has created sleeves and websites for – ‘Although design came first for me,’ he explains, ‘the way I make music is very similar – it’s all about ideas, I think more and more designers have got into programming music, crossing over – it’s just a computer, although guitars and pianos scare me,’ Farrington admits.

Andersen agrees with Farrington about the proliferation of computers amongst musicians and sees cross-over working both ways – ‘Pretty much all bands now have Macs,’ he reasons, ‘they’ve been making music on them, and now they’re starting to tinker with design on them too.’ Surely this must be a good thing? ‘Yes and no,’ argues Andersen, ‘ a designer rarely gets involved in working with small bands for the money, it’s the relationship with the music; as a designer you want to do some interesting work but with some bands thinking that design is easy, budgets have been slashed… some of them think they can do it themselves,’ Maybe the musicians are thinking similar thoughts about the designers meddling with music…